Sometimes an explore means a lot to me, and has so much more to it than just my experience and photos that I feel compelled to write an involved piece about it. Previously I've done this only for the Paris Catacombs, but hope to be able to do it for more places in future. After over a year of speculation and talk, I finally managed to explore one of the very few remaining German WW2 U-boats.
The Sinking of U-534
The five tired, frightened but brave figures stood, waiting, as their crippled submarine drifted down to the sea bed. Somewhere above them the other 47 members of their crew were clinging hopefully to their life jackets awaiting rescue by an Allied ship. Down below, however, things weren't looking so good. The aft torpedo compartment had suffered badly from the blast of a depth charge, dropped from the sky by Liberator bomber 'G' for George, and now the submarine was partly flooded.
U-534 shortly before the attack
Amongst the trapped submariners was the boat's cook, Karl Gernhardt. Perhaps one of the most stressful jobs of all was preparing meals for 52 men in a tiny galley, smaller even than what you'd find in the cheapest of city-centre apartments. Remaining calm, Karl found the escape apparatus and ensured everyone was prepared. This was a very real possibility that they had trained for as new Kriegsmarine recruits, and now they were preparing for the ultimate test, where remaining calm would determine whether they lived or drowned.
Opening a valve, the compartment was flooded, equalising the pressure both sides of the hatch. With brute strength and determination, the locking wheel was wound and the hatch released. Pushing it open, the men swam out of the submarine. Reaching the surface, they were reunited with the rest of the crew. There were three casualties - one from exposure and two from decompression sickness. For the survivors, now prisoners of war, and for the submarine, almost totally full of water on the sea bed, the war was over.
So why was U-534 chosen as a candidate for 'raising'? What was so special about her that inspired the Danish Publisher, Karsten Rae, to finance the salvage? In 1945, as the submarine sat on the seabed, the wireless operator received an important communication from Admiral Doenitz, himself commander of the U-boat fleet and German head of state after the suicide of Hitler. The message informed the captains of all the remaining U-boats that they were to surrender to the Allies by 0800hrs on 5th May.
Herbert Nollau, the U-boat's commander since it was commissioned in 1942, made the decision to surface and head for Norway with no surrender flag flying. This was observed and communicated to RAF Coastal Command, and Liberator bombers were quickly despatched to intercept.
A captured U-boat in Liverpool's Gladstone Dock
So why the decision not to surrender? Why head for Norway at such a desperate hour as the Third Reich fell apart? Rumours and theories suggested that perhaps the boat had been carrying a high-ranking Nazi leader to South America, or was perhaps transporting gold. Unfortunately Captain Nollau had taken his own life shortly after the sinking of U-534, and so the real story will probably never be known.
On Monday August 23rd, 1993, U-534 surfaced for the last time. Dutch salvage team Smit-Tak had used a giant steel sling to lift the boat, and as she broke the waves once more the progress was watched by 8 members of her last crew and 4 members of the Liberator bomber that had sunk her. Before any real investigation could be undertaken, tons of silt, mud and dangerous explosives had to be removed.
The Move to Birkenhead
Searches of the vessel did not produce any gold or diamonds, nor any evidence of high-ranking Nazis. One of the former crew members was asked by the salvage team if he knew of unsual. He said that there was nothing sinister going on with their boat, and that it was likely they would've surrendered in Oslo. Thankfully a home was found for U-534 in Birkenhead, close to where the World's first ever submarine was tested. Liverpool played a significant role in the Battle of the Atlantic, so it seemed a fitting location for the boat.
On arrival, the submarine was positioned on the quayside of the East Float Dock, next door to the old Spillers Mill. Here the Historic Warships Museum prepared the ship for public tours, first ensuring that any hazards had been removed before installing electric lights and new wooden decking (the original wood had rotted away). A new conning tower had to be constructed, and the original gun was mounted on it.
In February 2006 the museum was forced into closure. The redevelopment of the mill into new apartments had claimed the land for a carpark, and it wasn't feasible to relocate the museum. Aside from a loss of jobs, Merseyside had lost an important reminder of it's fascinating naval history. Luckily for me I'd been to the museum in 2001, seeing Onyx and Plymouth. In January 2006 I went on one of the last U-534 tours, but wasn't able to take many photos as these had been banned by the then owner of the boat.
U-534, just before the museum closed
With the museum closed, the submarine had to be moved. About a year ago a complex operation saw it transported to the neighbouring quayside, where it has remained since. As the days passed and nothing happened to it, I wondered if the submarine would ever be opened to the public again, or worse perhaps it would even be cut up for scrap. This was a big shame, considering the vast sums of money being injected into Liverpool development projects.
A Potential Explore?
With the future of U-534 in doubt, I started discussing it as a potential explore with Frank. We decided it would be possible to get up on it, but it would need some ropework. On an impulse, I bought a full complement of SRT (Single Rope Technique) gear to remove one of the 'barriers' of the project. After that other things took our attention, and the submarine was partly forgotten about.
Suddenly news arrived that the boat was to be moved to nearby Woodside ferry terminal to be put on display, by new owners Merseytravel. Good news, I thought, until I read that the submarine would have to be cut into three parts to be moved. Although it was intended to put perspex over the ends and build viewing platforms, I couldn't help but think it was a waste. One of very few 'intact' U-boats left, and here it was about to be sawn into pieces. It just wouldn't look the same in three bits. I later found out that this possibility had been investigated over 6 months ago, and so it's very likely that this is what will happen.
With only a few months until the work was proposed to start, I knew that if I wanted to see it properly then I would have to act fast. The kit list was more or less complete, but with Frank moved to London some new 'team members' were required. I'd talked to reefdog about it before at some point, and explored some fairly difficult stuff with him and TristanJay in the past. They were more than happy to join me - the next step then was a recce.
With other business on the Wirral, myself and reefdog stopped by the U-boat for an evening look. Negotiating the fences wasn't difficult, and this brought us within touching distance of the submarine. On the ground was a big heap of electric lights, which I recognised from the tour. Preparation work for the 'disection', perhaps? Also spotted was a CCTV camera on the forward deck, but this was probably from the U-boat's time at the museum, where it was actually cared for.
Being close to the boat reminded us just how high it was, and just how difficult it would be to climb. Nevertheless, an attempt would be made, but after darkness on another day in the near future. For the time being I was happy to photograph the outside, especially as the setting sun caught the colour of the rust hull so nicely.
On the night of the planned attempt, the first task was to prepare the kit. It's too easy to forget things, so myself and reefdog, who were providing the rope gear, decided to lay everything out on his living room floor. As shown in the photo below, there was lots to carry...
Most important was the rope gear. Good quality climbing rope was needed, plus full-body harnesses, ascenders and a range of karabiners, slings and shorter ropes. To get the rope up on the 'sub' we were going to use a tennis-ball on some nylon cord. And so a tennis racket would be needed to get the ball and string over the boat. It would be a long night, so food and drink was included in the planning. Next on the list were torches. A search beam torch, a reliable Maglite and some backup torches. Also a head torch and LED hand torch.
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